President Donald Trump came under heavy fire from virtually the entire media and political establishment over the weekend in the wake of his wild allegations against former President Barack Obama and appears to have made the atmosphere of crisis around the White House worse rather than better.
As The New York Times reported on Sunday, even James Comey, the FBI director widely seen in Washington as a Trump ally, has apparently been angered by the president's unsupported charges that Obama had ordered the wiretapping of his Trump Tower headquarters prior to the November election. According to the Times, Comey asked the Justice Department on Saturday to publicly reject Trump's allegations, although no such statement has been forthcoming.
This all began on Saturday morning, when Trump cranked out a number of now-infamous tweets from his weekend retreat at Mar-a-Lago, written in the president's inimitable semiliterate prose.
Multiple media sources have since reported that even Trump's closest aides didn't know this tweetstorm was coming and found out about it the same way everyone else did. According to detailed reports drawn from anonymous White House sources in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, the president had flown to Florida in a foul mood on Friday evening.
Trump was reportedly angry that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the investigation of Russian hacking without telling him first — indeed, just hours after Trump had told the press Sessions should not do so. And the president was apparently bitter about the constant leaks, bad press and perceived dysfunction that had poisoned the mood of his administration from its earliest days.
If Trump's Twitter outburst was partly fueled by that sense of seething resentment, its direct impetus appears (as usual) to have been a conspiracy theory pulled straight from right-wing media. In this case, it was a story on Breitbart News based on talk-show host Mark Levin's claim that Obama had tried to stage a “silent coup” against the Trump campaign and perhaps the current Trump administration as well.
As the Times report put it, Steve Bannon and other Trump aides "have believed for a long time that the Obama administration colluded with federal investigators who were searching for activity between Russian officials and the Trump campaign surrounding the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails."
According to the Post article, Bannon "has spoken with Trump at length about his view that the 'deep state' is a direct threat to his presidency." (That article earlier defines "deep state" as "a phrase popular on the right for describing entrenched networks hostile to Trump," which reveals a curious ideological blind spot. The term originated on the left and only recently has been imported into conservative discourse.)
In any event, the Breitbart article clearly struck a chord with Trump, who appears to have been startled that virtually no one in the media or either major political party has come forward to support his allegations. Democrats have assailed the charges as ludicrous, while most most Republicans have remained silent. Nonetheless, on Sunday the White House demanded a congressional investigation of whether Obama had abused “executive branch investigative powers” during the 2016 campaign.
In a possible signal that some in the White House understood that Trump had isolated himself with these charges, the official statement concluded, “Neither the White House nor the President will comment further until such oversight is conducted.”
A day earlier, Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis denied that the former president had ordered any such surveillance of Trump Tower, calling Trump’s charges “simply false.” Neither Obama “nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen,” Lewis said in a statement.
A more specific denial came from James Clapper, director of national intelligence under Obama. In a Sunday morning appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Clapper said, “There was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president-elect at the time, as a candidate or against his campaign.” Clapper “absolutely” would have known of any possible surveillance warrant against Trump or his campaign, he insisted.
Trump’s critics fastened onto the fact that he appeared to not understand that no chief executive can unilaterally order a surveillance operation against an American citizen. Any such request would have to go through a federal judge, who can issue a surveillance warrant if he or she finds probable cause that the subject of investigation has committed a federal crime or is a foreign agent.
Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, tweeted at Trump on Saturday, “Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you.”
As Alan Yuhas of The Guardian noted in a useful explainer piece on Saturday, the Breitbart story that apparently enraged Trump has its roots in an intriguing Heat Street article from November by Louise Mensch, a former member of the British Parliament. Mensch reported that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (a secret judicial panel also known as the FISA court) “had granted the FBI a surveillance warrant of ‘US persons’ to investigate possible contacts between Russian banks and Trump’s associates.” Who those “US persons” might be and whether Trump Tower was the surveillance target was not made clear.
Bradley P. Moss of Politico later elaborated on this theme, explaining that if Mensch's claims are accurate, then officials in the Obama Justice Department or the FBI may have convinced the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that unnamed associates of Trump qualified as "agents of a foreign power" because of their extensive contacts with Russian officials.
As Moss observed, until this weekend Mensch's reporting — apparently drawn from two unnamed sources — had barely been mentioned, let alone confirmed, by any major U.S. media outlets. Plenty of mainstream reporters will now try to track down those sources.
So various readings of the facts behind this weekend’s tumultuous events are possible, including that indeed there was some form of surveillance operation directed against Trump but Obama did not order it — and that perhaps the target was not Trump's campaign but his business.
Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general under George W. Bush, was one of the few current or former government officials to suggest that Trump might be partly right — but not in a way that he is likely to find comforting. In his Sunday appearance on ABC's "This Week," Mukasey appeared to allude to the wiretap possibility raised by Mensch.
“The president was not correct, certainly, in saying that President Obama ordered a tap on a server in Trump Tower,” Mukasey said. “However, I think he’s right in that there was surveillance and that it was conducted at the behest of the attorney — of the Justice Department,” presumably by way of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
As Yuhas and other commentators have observed, the Obama team’s denial addressed only the former president’s actions and avoided the underlying question of whether the Trump Tower had, in fact, been under surveillance and why that might have happened. Clapper’s denial on “Meet the Press” was phrased in a similarly careful manner. He specified that there had been no wiretap on Trump “as a candidate or against his campaign.”
Clapper did not say Trump or his associates had never been under surveillance at all, since that is clearly not the case. As virtually the entire country understands by now, the president of the United States is under investigation, and every time he tries to wriggle free he seems to entangle himself further.